Our family recently returned from a week touring Israel, the Holy Land, followed by a week visiting Paris and Normandy. During our journey in Israel, my niece and nephew from California led their bar & bat mitzvah prayer service at the Robinson Arch in Jerusalem. We spent seven days touring Israel with our energetic guide: Joe Freedman (see below for contact info).
About our private tour: Our guide, Joe, is an experienced, organized, interesting and warm professional who made a sincere effort to get to know our group of family and friends, and make our tour fun and memorable. He planned our itinerary down to minute, in meticulous detail. Joe communicated with my sister-in-law for about a year to fine-tune the itinerary. During the week, he also coordinated closely with Moshe, our seasoned bus driver. Our tour itinerary was ambitious, covering hundreds of miles in Israel and spanning many time periods of Israeli history. For every site/sight we visited, Joe explained its cultural, geographical, historical, linguistic and religious significance. Our group agreed that Joe was a superb guide!
Note: since I'm reviewing an entire country, this review is long by necessity. Feel free to skip around to the sections which interest you.
Our journey began at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Wow, Ben Gurion is one of the most magnificent, visually appealing and modern airports I've ever flown into! Plan some time to get through the passport check, before meeting your party.
Here is our daily itinerary and my experience, thoughts and travel recommendations:
DAY 1 ~ TEL AVIV & JAFFA
We spent the afternoon visiting cousins who live in the suburb of Shoram. We ate a light dinner at "Cafe Cafe". The next day, our cousins drove us to the old city of Jaffa (Yafo). We walked past the beach, around the port, and around the old city, with its stone walls and buildings. We enjoyed a pleasant morning, although nothing exceptional stood out for me in Jaffa. I recommend the old city of Jaffa for a relaxing time and maybe some ice cream or lunch in a cafe.
That afternoon, we drove back to the airport to connect with our tour and begin our journey.
DAY 2 ~ K'FAR HANOKDIM, A BEDOUIN VILLAGE FOR TOURISTS
Driving to this site, we noticed the poor conditions in many Bedouin encampments. Trash was strewn everywhere, and we learned that basic municipal services, like trash pickup and utiltiies, are not available to Bedouin encampments. Our destination, K'far HaNokdim, offers many attractions, for those who dream of riding camels or donkeys, eating traditional Bedouin food, shopping for exotic clothing, and learning about Bedouin culture.
After we arrived, our group rode camels and donkeys for a short trek. I personally found the camel/donkey ride OK, but not as exciting as I had hoped. Others in our group really seemed to enjoy it, though. Two people were seated per camel; one person per donkey. The setting was a trail on the encampment, and the Bedouin guides did not say much during the ride to make it more captivating. I think the guides could have made this a very fun ride, had they interacted more with us and not remained so silent.
After the ride, we gathered in large tent, where we were treated to Bedouin Hospitality, sitting upon rugs and pillows, and receiving small cups of very strong tea and cardamom-scented coffee (which sadly, I did not like). More interesting, was hearing a Bedouin elder explain some aspects of Bedouin culture, honor code, hospitality and traditions. I enjoyed this part, and the host offered examples of proper guest treatment, and answered some of our questions. I am guessing our Bedouin "hosts" receive many tourists each year, and their "show" is very well coordinated, although not quite as sincere one might hope.
Next, it was time for dinner, and we sat down for quite an elaborate, multi-course Sheikh Dinner, with appetizers, lamb and chicken skewers, salads, vegetable side-dishes, pita bread, desserts and coffee. I thought the meal was fairly tasty, and it was cooked under kosher supervision. The meal was very filling, so bring a big appetite!
From the Bedouin facility, we drove about an hour to the Masada Guest House, in preparation to climb Masada early the next morning. This is an attractive, multi-story guest house (aka youth hostel, but much nicer than the average hostel) with a large dining room. Our rooms were fairly Spartan, but very clean and with a private bathroom. The best part about this hotel is it's just steps away from the path to climb Masada!
DAY 3 ~ MASADA, EIN GEDI AND THE DEAD SEA
Masada is the site of a palace/fortress built on top of a mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, approximately 2000 years ago by Herod the Great (d. 4 BC) . A typical manner of visiting Masada is to gather at the base before sunrise, and climb the fairly steep path before dawn, hopefully arriving in time to watch the sunrise from the top.
We began our ascension early (5 am), and I realized I wasn't in as good shape as I had hoped. (In hindsight, we should have started at 4:30.) It took me longer to climb to the top, taking frequent rest breaks and drinking copious amounts of water. By the time I was halfway there, the sun peaked over the horizon. That was cool to watch, but the rays soon made us very hot and sweaty! By the time I summited, the sun was fully up, but we all took a break and then explored the entire plateau, learning the history and archaeology of the ruins.
Masada once housed a group of Jewish zealots, who lived and worshipped there until the threat of a Roman seige (around 66 CE) inspired them to commit mass suicide, in lieu of being captured and enslaved. The site has been thoroughly excavated, and we toured the palace ruins, for example: giant cisterns to hold rainwater; storage rooms for grain, a mikveh (ritual bath) and Roman-style baths with colorful tiles still intact.
Our tour guide lead us down a path to southern end of the mountain, where we experimented with the acoustic properties of yelling ~ because of the canyons, we heard our echo very clearly!
Overall, Masada is a quintessential tourist site, and I highly recommend walking up if you're physically able and arrive early enough to walk before sunrise (or not during the summer). If not, there's a cable car that ascends around 8 am. We took the cable car down, and that was quick and effective way to hurry toward our well deserved brunch at the Masada Guest House! (Not the tastiest food, but still a decent selection of vegetarian items). As our tour guide reminded us frequently, "Drink tons of water and don't get dehydrated!"
Next stop on the tour was EIN GEDI NATURE RESERVE. This was the second time I had visited this oasis in the desert. Only a short walk from the parking lot, our group hiked a well-traveled pathway to the lower cascades or waterfalls. We could have stayed and swam in the small pools, but we decided to hike about 15 minutes further up the hill to the larger group of waterfalls. Several medium sized natural swimming pools are fed by the cascades. These waterfalls are so refreshing ~ we enjoyed swimming and relaxing in the shade. The pools are popular, so don't expect a secluded spot. Definitely a highlight of our day ~ after a hot climb, these cascades hit the spot!
Our third stop was Mineral Beach on the Dead Sea. This beach is popular for its accessible sacks of goopy dead sea mud, which are freely available to visitors. Umbrellas and chairs were also part of the package. Some of our tour group went hog wild (literally) covering themselves head-to-toe in charcoal-colored mud. Others applied a smattering (like me). Then, we floated for snippets of 10 minutes at a time. We were advised not to stay in the Dead Sea for longer stretches, and also not to splash around and to keep the salty water out of our eyes. What fun! Good for about an hour of relaxing by the sea. Also, we ate a decent lunch at the small cafeteria near the entrance.
After a long day, we drove to Jerusalem, checked into the Mt. Zion Hotel.
That evening (yes, still part of our very long day!) we took a short bus ride to the ISRAEL MUSEUM . This top notch museum is suited for an entire morning or afternoon visit. At the museum, we focused our attention on a large-scale model of Jerusalem, as it appeared during the Second Temple era.
Then, we entered the odd-shaped "Shrine of the Book" structure which holds the Dead Sea Scrolls. Inside this climate controlled building, we viewed many parchment scrolls from different periods in Jewish history. The parchments are all encased in glass, and many were found in the 20th century, hidden from thieves in a cave, and preserved by the dessicated atmosphere near the Dead Sea. I highly recommend this museum, and hope to return one day, as we merely scratched the surface of its contents.
DAY 4 ~ JERUSALEM, THE KOTEL, THE SHUK (MARKETS)
After a magnificent breakfast in our hotel (Mt. Zion) we drove to TAYELET – the Haas-Sherover Promenade overlooking the Old City from the South. We photographed the marvelous view and had an interesting discussion. Then, we returned to the bus and drove around the Old City of Jerusalem, learning about the different gates and where they lead. (The Damascus gate leads to Syria; the Jaffa gate led to Jaffa, etc.) We entered via the Dung Gate, which is named after effluent which traveled downhill toward that entrance.
We walked toward the Kotel, which is the Western Wall of the second temple, where Jews pray, and may fill cracks in the wall with written snips of prayer. We learned the Kotel is actually a portion of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, a platform that King Herod built to raise up the temple so it could be seen from all around. After taking moments to reflect, we entered the KOTEL TUNNEL which leads underground to much older structures (which are now a sort of basement for the Old City). Then, we walked through Hasmonean aqueduct to the Struthion Pool. Finally, we exited the tunnels/basement and walked through the Via Dolorosa and down Gai Street (Valley Street) to the Jewish Quarter lunch.
Plenty of cafes and bakeries line the street where we obtained lunch in the Jewish Quarter. After lunch, we explored the Quarter, a well-kept neighborhood inhabited by observant Jews, who go about their daily lives in this ancient, but somehow modern environment. I found the Jewish quarter a pleasant place to people watch, and much quieter and less labyrinthine than the Arab and Armenian markets. I was struck by how little the Arab market seems to have changed since I visited during college in 1987. Literally, the aroma of spices, perfumes and tobaccos still permeates the air, offering an air of time gone by. Old-time butchers, bakers and even candlestick makers man their stalls, as do purveyors of more modern merchandise. I make a point of not chatting with shop owners unless I truly wish to purchase something. You can smile, though :)
Back near our hotel, we ate a delicious, Italian-inspired, family-style dinner at the Machneyuda restaurant, a ten minute walk down the street from our hotel. I'd award this Israeli bistro 4-5 stars for food quality and service.
DAY 5 ~ JERUSALEM: BAR MITZVAH SERVICE AT ROBINSON'S ARCH, HEZEKIAH'S TUNNEL
First stop: Davidson Museum (the entrance to Robinson's Arch)
Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays are traditionally days when Jews gather to read Torah. These are popular days for bar and bat mitzvah services. Thus, we gathered at the Kotel (western wall) near Robinson's Arch in the old city of Jerusalem, to attend my niece and nephew's b'nai mitzvah service. (B'nai mitzvah = bar mitzvah + bat mitzvah).
If a boy and girl wishes to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah in mixed company, Robinson Arch is suited to the occasion, because men and women may worship together at this location. The setting is stunning ~ we stood facing a backdrop of ancient quarried-stone walls, columns and debris. The only drawback ~ our group stood for the hour-long service, as chairs are not available at this part of the kotel. The path to reach the prayer spot is somewhat treacherous, as you make your way through the boulders, along an uneven path. I recommend lending a hand to any elderly folks in your party with the descent.
At least five separate services took place simultaneously along the Kotel, with each bar or bat mitzvah standing beside a table holding a Torah. My niece and nephew led their service (prepared in advance), chanting from the Torah and delivering their own d'var Torah (a speech discussing their Torah portion). We prayed, laughed and cried together ~ it was a moving and memorable experience for everyone!
After the service, we exited and stood near the Dung Gate. While we were waiting, a steady stream of bar mitzvah "parades" entered the Gate in joyful celebration ~ some were beating drums, others blowing shofars (ram's horn instruments). What a surprise! I felt joyful myself, watching these celebratory marches. If you're planning a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, you might investigate how to obtain drummers and shofar blowers to celebrate your simcha (special event).
After our celebration brunch in the Jewish Quarter, some of us walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian Quarter. Of the many foreign cathedrals I've visited, this one is perhaps the most sacred. It was constructed on the site where Jesus was crucified (Golgotha or Calvary), buried (the cave of the sepulchre) and where Christians believe Jesus was resurrected. We noticed many pilgrims kissing the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was prepared for burial. Overall, this Cathedral is definitely worth visiting, and for Christians will be a holy experience. Plan to spend at least an hour, if you would like to climb the stairway to see Golgotha (we did not).
Our next stop on the tour was the City of David, where we explored an ancient aqueduct called Hezekiah's Tunnel. This attraction is geared toward the young and young-at-heart, who will not mind exploring a water-filled tunnel that's unlit and paved with rocks. Water shoes and flashlight are required! I chickened out at the last minute and traversed the adjacent dry tunnel instead. The kids in our party had a blast at this historical attraction! Even many of the adults enjoyed it, although it wasn't my cup of tea.
After returning to our hotel to rest and shower, we walked to Eucalyptus restaurant for a biblically-themed dinner, and then visited the Tower of David for their "Night Spectacular" ~ a multi-spectral and illuminating light-theatre show, loosely based on the history of Jerusalem.
DAY 6 ~ SAFED/TZEFAT, GOLAN HEIGHTS
We boarded the tour bus, and drove through the Jordan River Valley towards the Galilee, passed by Jericho, drove by the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and stopped for lunch and shopping in the artist colony and spiritual epicenter of Kabbala (Mystic Judaism) called Tzefat or Safed.
Of particular interest in Tzefat was the white and blue Sephardic Synagogue called "Abuhav" named to honor a (possible) distant ancestor of my husband's family. At least, one with a similar namesake. We visited two functioning synagogues, both very colorful and in the Sephardic or Mediterranean style. Don't forget to leave tzedakah (an offering) in the synagogue, if you can. We also stopped by a candle store (there are candle factories in Safed) and passed by plenty of paintings, sculptures, mezuzahs and other Jewish cultural artifacts for sale in this charming, scenic town.
After our stop in Safed, we drove to the GOLAN HEIGHTS and visited a former Israeli bunker and memorial overlooking Syria and the town of Quneitra. We ended our day's journey at the lovely, relaxing Kibbutz Kfar Giladi Hotel. We enjoyed modern, comfortable accommodations and bountiful Shabbat dinner; and typical fruit and veggie-filled breakfast the next morning.
DAY 7 ~ CAESAREA & TEL AVIV
For our last day touring together, we headed south toward the seaside attraction and archaeological ruins of Caesarea. During Roman rule of Palestine, Caesarea was its capital. I found a helpful description of this site here: http://www.goisrael.com/Tourism_Eng:
Caesarea was built as part of Herod the Great's ambitious plan to "Hellenise" the Holy Land in the 1st century BCE. He chose the site of a small Phoenician port called Stratton's Tower and laid out a classical Greek city, complete with amphitheatre and stadium. Herod also constructed an artificial harbor by making use of concrete piling under water - the first ever such use of concrete.... An archaeological site preserving the original theater built by Herod, replica of the Pontius Pilot inscription, Byzantine Archive Buildings, Cardo Maximus as well as bath-houses, warehouses, an amphitheatre and the harbor.
It was surprising to witness how these ancient ruins have been excavated, preserved, reconstructed, and now improved and exploited for tourism. For example, the theatre features a modern stage and sound system for concerts. You'll find many restaurants and attractions for families, including a 3-D "multimedia" presentation which we enjoyed watching. Tourists should plan several hours (minimum) to get maximum entertainment value from exploring the ruins and shopping or eating in the modern village.
Our tour ended when we returned to Tel Aviv to spend our last night at the Grand Beach Hotel. Arriving on the Sabbath, our large group was assigned rooms near the top floor of this high rise. Only one elevator was functioning, with one broken and the other on "Shabbat" duty, meaning it stopped on every floor. Other than that, the hotel is situated across the street from a nice beach and we did catch about 45 minutes of gentle surf before heading out to dinner.
Early next morning, we took a pre-arranged taxi back to Ben Gurion Airport (about a 45 minute drive) and departed for Paris, France.
Overall, our Israel adventure was marvelous in every respect. I would like to credit our tour guide for arranging many details in advance, for his outgoing and organized personality, for his business integrity, and for playing the role of teacher, leader, advocate and friend. His name is Joe Freedman ~ email@example.com and I highly recommend his services as a tour guide for private tours. (with permission from Joe).
PS: Feel free to leave a comment with any questions about the places we visited and/or hotels we stayed in.
keywords: israel, travel guides, tour operators, tour guides, private tour, bar mitzvah
Read all 56 Reviews
Write a Review
Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Anytime